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15 November 2021

Billy Bragg: Why I’ve made my old lyrics trans-inclusive

Gender-critical activists disagree with my decision to rework my song “Sexuality”. But I want to be an ally to the trans and non-binary communities.

By Billy Bragg

Last week, I found myself under fire from gender-critical activists on Twitter, who were agitated to discover that I had changed the lyrics to my 1991 single “Sexuality” when performing the song live on tour. Where previously I had sung “Just because you’re gay I won’t turn you away/If you stick around, I’m sure that we can find some common ground”, for the past few years, I’ve been replacing “gay” with “they” and “some common ground” with “the right pronouns”, in an expression of allyship with the trans and non-binary communities. 

Although music cannot change the world – it has no agency – it can change your perspective and challenge your prejudices. Throughout my career, I’ve used my songs to promote allyship among my audience: for the female victims of male violence in songs such as “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” and “Valentine’s Day is Over”, and for the gay community in “Tender Comrade”, as well as the aforementioned “Sexuality”. The latter was released at a time when a combination of the Aids epidemic and the Tories’ Section 28 legislation stirred up a moral panic against homosexuality. Thirty years later, however, encouraging your audience to find common ground with the gay community is no longer such a challenging statement. 

We’ve come a long way since then. Equal rights legislation has given gays and lesbians the same benefits and protections as everybody else. But for all our progress, there remains one group of marginalised people whose legitimacy can be questioned among liberal circles: transgender women. The comments of a few high-profile gender-critical feminists has created a quandary for some leftists. Those of us who formed our political beliefs in the 1970s and 1980s are instinctive supporters of women’s rights. Our moral compasses are confused.

The younger generation can see that we are conflicted. Every night on tour, I frame “Sexuality” with a plea of support for Stonewall, the UK’s premier defender of LGBTQ rights, which is currently under attack from powerful anti-trans elements within the government and the media. Witnessing the response at one show, someone tweeted how amazing it was to see people who grew up in the 1980s roaring in approval at a statement of support for trans rights.

To better understand where the gender-critical movement sits on the left/right spectrum through which we Late Boomers persist in seeing the world, it helps to look to the US. There, it’s pretty clear-cut where opposition to trans rights is coming from: 84 per cent of white evangelical Christians believe that gender is determined by sex at birth. The same demographic has similarly strong opinions about preventing women from getting abortions, and are often firm supporters of Donald Trump, who in 2018 who proposed policies the New York Times described as attempting to define “transgender” out of existence.

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As in the US, the use of female public toilet facilities by transgender women has become a flashpoint, with gender-critical women arguing that they don’t feel safe if trans women who have not yet fully transitioned are allowed to use the same bathrooms. In making this argument, they are echoing the tropes used against the gay community in the 1970s and 1980s – that trans people are by nature sexual predators, that they cannot be trusted in the presence of children, that they’re nothing but perverts. By using a handful of examples of abusive behaviour to tar the whole trans community, they seek to make the very idea of trans rights a form of predation. 

There is also scant regard for the safety of trans women in this argument. The Washington Post reported on 10 November that 2021 has so far been the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the US, highlighting the fact that transgender women are four times more likely to be murdered than cisgender women. And who is perpetrating this violence? Cisgender men. By seeking to push trans women back into the men’s toilets, gender-critical activists are forcing an already vulnerable community to face the threat of more violence and abuse.

The issue of trans rights is complex. Debating the issue via email with gender-critical activists, I’ve found the argument inevitably boils down to the question of which is more important: biology or human rights. It’s an argument made more difficult to negotiate by the fact that the hard-won rights of women must also be given full consideration. While this might seem insurmountable, it is not dissimilar to the challenge that feminists faced in the 20th century, when they were vehemently opposed by those who believed women’s traditional roles within the family unit were more important than their basic human rights.

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The way forward requires a lot of calm deliberation and confidence building. Such measures are hard to sustain when the anti-trans movement in the UK is led by the LGB Alliance, the very name of which seeks to erase the trans community from its place in the LGBTQ rainbow. I’m not erasing the gay community when I change the lyrics to “Sexuality”, I’m simply updating them to reflect the changing times we live in. My hope is to encourage others of my generation to do the same with their long-cherished notions of an inclusive society.

[See also: The battle for Stonewall: the LGBT charity and the UK’s gender wars]

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